- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004


So you picked up a 20-ounce soft drink for lunch — do you know how many calories you’re guzzling? Probably a whopping 275, although it can be hard to tell from the labels on bottles.

That may change: The government asked food makers yesterday to be more open about how much they pack into drinks, chips and other products Americans eat on the go, part of an effort to help consumers count calories a little easier.

To keep trim, “calories in must equal calories out — it’s just that simple,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

But counting calories can be confusing, he said in announcing some Food and Drug Administration recommendations designed to help.

Among the recommendations:

• Changing food labels to list calories in larger type, easier to see at a glance, and to list the percent of consumers’ daily allotment of calories a serving of each food brings. In the 20-ounce soft-drink example, those 275 calories would be 14 percent of a typical person’s daily allotment.

The FDA wouldn’t say how soon it would propose regulations necessary for the change.

• Making foods such as chips and soft drinks, which most people eat at one time though they contain two or more “servings,” list the product’s total calories. For example, 20-ounce soft drinks currently are labeled as having 21/2 servings and 110 calories per serving, requiring consumers to compute total calorie consumption.

The FDA wrote to food makers yesterday, urging that they make that change immediately, although it is not mandatory.

• Urging all restaurants to list calories on menus.

Most of the FDA’s recommendations are voluntary, which lets business off the hook at the expense of Americans’ health, said Michael Jacobsen of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“Relying on junk-food marketers’ self-policing is naive and one of the things that helped Americans waddle into the obesity epidemic in the first place,” he said.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, has introduced legislation that would require restaurant calorie counts. “We must move beyond recommendations to immediate action,” he said.

Market competition is making more restaurants do that already, Mr. Thompson responded. The latest, Ruby Tuesday, announced this week that it was listing calories on menus.

But, “if this doesn’t work, we’ll take a harder look at … actions that are more aggressive,” he said.

The easiest-to-implement recommendation — listing total calories for foods people eat all at once — seems to mark a shift for FDA, said Alison Kretser of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, who welcomed the new flexibility.

In 2001, a company selling a flavored “fitness water” marked its 24-ounce bottles as containing 30 calories, because buyers typically drank the whole bottle. FDA initially ordered it to relabel the bottles as containing three servings at 10 calories each.

Several months later, FDA reversed itself, saying the initial label was OK.

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